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Gone with the Wind Copyright Battle ends with a Whimper

20 May 2002

What the Boston Globe has described as 'the most contentious copyright battle in recent memory' ( see News Review dated 29 April 2001 and 11 June 2001) has just ended rather inconclusively, as the Mitchell Trusts, representing the heirs of Margaret Mitchell, gave up the legal fight to block publication of The Wind Done Gone. Alice Randall's parody had reinterpreted Gone with the Wind from the point of view of Scarlett's black slave half-sister. The novel is to be published with a label calling it 'an unauthorized parody'.

If you believe that an author should have full copyright protection for their work, including the plot and characters they have created, you may feel that this outcome is unsatisfactory in protecting authors' rights. But if you think that Alice Randall's work was giving voice to another view of Mitchell's mythic novel, you may feel that her parody should be fully available. Gone with the Wind is indubitably Margaret Mitchell's copyright, but has its importance as an interpretation of the American Civil War from the white plantation-owner's perspective given it some other, iconic status? And does this justify publication of Alice Randall's reinterpretation to 'set the record straight' or is she trying to cash in on the earlier book's huge success?

More Debate on American Book Sales

Following on from last week's report about book sales trends in the UK and US, there has been further discussion of prospects for the US book business, but little agreement on where things are heading. Michael Cader, industry commentator and editor of the industry newsletter Publishers' Lunch, is disposed to take a gloomy view: 'With record numbers of new books published every year, a more liquid market for used books online, fewer books going out of print thanks to print-on-demand technology, and overall unit sales stagnant or even declining, the mathematical collision is disastrous - lower sales for all but a few titles.'

But other commentators, including Patricia Schroeder, President of the Association of American PublishersThe national trade association of the American book publishing industry; AAP has more than 300 members, including most of the major commercial publishers in the United States, as well as smaller and non-profit publishers, university presses and scholarly societies, disagrees: 'We have been getting statistics that we send out every month that we hardly believe. They are so good.'

Perhaps these differing views reflect different timescales looking forward. In the end no-one really knows whether current trends will continue or go into reverse. But 135,000 new books published in 2001 in the US is a very large number, so the sheer growth in output must be having some effect. September 11th had a catastrophic impact on fall 2002 book sales and perhaps one of its longer-term after-effects has been a loss of confidence in the future of the book business.